Sunday, 13 October 2013
But for a hush: some notes on Kathleen’s Jamie’s ‘The Orchard’
Here is the late half-land
where the underworld,
the moon-shadow of an apple tree
is a darkness, like the earth
we’re called from –
silent but for a hush
like heavy skirts;
women, perhaps, passing
on the far side of a wall
whom we may call
our history; or a vole,
some creature of the dusk
when the arms of the slender
garden plum trees suddenly
turn muscular, and deepest blue.
(from The Tree House, 2004)
In recent years, Kathleen Jamie has arguably become better known for the essays – collected in Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012) – that have marked her out as a leading light of the much-hyped ‘New Nature Writing’ movement, than for her poetry. Although Jamie was invited to contribute to Granta 102 (2008, ed. Jason Cowley), featuring “The New Nature Writing” of 19 essayists, naturalists, poets and other writers, only one of whom other than Jamie was female, she has kept her distance from the hype, and memorably critiqued the “macho...colonial adventuring” of the movement’s presiding spirit, Robert Macfarlane, in his 2007 book The Wild Places. Her stance was a necessary corrective to the strangely hyperbolic praise heaped on Macfarlane by the then Poet Laureate and others. As Jamie intimated, one doesn’t need a Cambridge don to point out the beauty of the less urbanised spaces of the UK, especially those in Scotland which Macfarlane seemed to regard as his own personal playground for celebrating in overwrought prose without any regard to the Clearances and their legacy, the absentee landownerism that continues to this day.
But, aside from all that, Kathleen Jamie was, and remains, a richly talented poet, who has pared back her style over the years so that it has become deceptively simple and clear. In her 2012 collection, The Overhaul, Jamie developed further the central engagement with nature, and its quasi-mystical, pantheistic qualities, that dominated her preceding collection, The Tree House. Nowhere has that engagement been more evident than in ‘The Orchard’.
The poem is one complete sentence, broken down into subordinate clauses, that describes from the outset the unsettling, dream-like beauty of twilight – the ‘late half-land’ – which plays tricks on the senses. The use of ‘late’ makes the scene at once present and past, as if light and time have vanished before we can discern that they have done so; and that sense is enhanced by ‘half-land’ – in these crepuscular moments, the definite sights of daytime become sketchy and slightly beyond our ken, and bring to mind, for me at least, the bewitching paintings of Samuel Palmer or the Faraway Tree children’s books of Enid Blyton. We are then told that this ‘half-land’ has an ‘underworld’, which conjures sinister, trickster-like connotations of Greek myth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or even, though more tangentially, the world of crime; and is, the poem implies, simultaneously both far beyond and, if we choose to look and listen attentively, within our immediate grasp. The third line appears to be a detailed, elucidatory metaphor for that ‘underworld’, yet the lack of a comma after ‘tree’ would make it syntactically seem to be in addition to that underworld were it not for the fact that the verb which follows – ‘is’ – pertains to one subject not two. Maybe the omission of the comma is a typographical error, but it’s not crucial and is the poem’s only (minor) flaw. The most obvious cultural associations of ‘the moon-shadow of an apple tree’ for me include Cat Stevens’s 1971 single ‘Moonshadow’, Palmer’s paintings and, although the poem pre-dates it, Tacita Dean’s wondrous (2007) film on the late, great poet Michael Hamburger, in which Hamburger movingly describes the history of the fruit from the individual apple trees within the orchard of his Suffolk home’s garden.
The format of the poem into tercets slows it down through a languid and measured enjambment. In normal circumstances, the practice of starting a line with ‘is a’ would look, to my eyes, a little ugly, but here it works because ‘darkness’ dominates the second half of the phrase. The ‘darkness’ confirms the sense conveyed earlier by ‘late’, of time moving faster than we can perceive, and then Jamie immediately shifts a gear, like a renku poet, with a simile that reminds us of the primeval slime and our pagan past: ‘the earth / we’re called from’. Thereafter, literally and metaphorically positioned at the heart of the poem, we have the real essence: an all but inaudible sound which has to be attuned to – ‘silent but for a hush’ which, wrapped in another simile, is ‘like [the unmentioned swish of] heavy skirts’, which are being worn by ‘women, perhaps, passing /on the far side of a wall’. The oxymoron of ‘heavy’ skirts causing such a quiet sound here is wonderful and overtly feminises the poem just before the use of ‘perhaps’ which is the exact centre of the poem and its point of equilibrium. That the sound emanates from ‘the far side of a wall’ makes the attentiveness of the auditory sense even greater, as though the setting of the poem is within a hortus enclosus, a cultural trope that has lasted from Jan van Eyck’s 1439 masterpiece, ‘The Madonna of the Fountain’ to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel, The Secret Garden, and makes the sound somehow supra-natural and incidental to life within the orchard. The lines ‘whom we may call / our history’ do not yield their meaning easily, and it is the ‘our’ that is the most puzzling: does it refer to ‘women’s’, as if the ‘women, perhaps, passing’ are, like suffragettes in long Edwardian dresses, heading elsewhere to make history on women’s behalf while life, in all its dusky oddness, continues in the microcosmic orchard? Or is that overstating the significance of a phrase whose verb is qualified by an ambiguous ‘may’?
A second semi-colon then implicitly takes the poem back to the ‘hush’ which could, as much as it could be made by the skirts, belong to ‘a vole, / some creature of the dusk’. Here, Jamie binds her words together on the ear: the ‘vole’ completes a hat-trick of end-rhymes – ‘wall’ / ‘call’ / ‘vole’ – and ‘dusk’ echoes ‘hush’, before a comparative barrage of heavier consonants, and assonance (‘plum’ / ‘suddenly’ / ‘muscular’), in the final verse. One wonders why Jamie used ‘garden’ when it appears to be superfluous, unless it was to augment the image of the hortus enclosus; though the lack of en-dashes means that ‘slender’ could be describing just ‘garden’ rather than the more obvious sense of describing ‘garden[-]plum trees’ – clearly the latter is intended since the ‘arms [...] turn muscular’.
The climax of the poem is bathed in visual trickery, where ‘slender’ tree branches ‘suddenly / turn muscular’, and where colour, ‘deepest blue’, envelops ‘the arms of the slender / garden plum trees’. (Samuel Palmer, like his mystical forebear Blake, would have opted – and frequently did so – for golden light.) In the final line, Jamie gets her comma use just right: the pause it creates allows room for the full effect of the void-like blue as night descends.
In five short verses, Jamie delineates a Gnostic netherworld where nothing is quite what it seems and one can never be sure what one has seen or heard. It is most magically rendered, perfectly paced, and lovely.